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Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a term used for a group of conditions which include Autism, Asperger's Syndrome, Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD) and Pervasive Developmental Disorder - Not Otherwise Specified (PDDNOS). Children with ASD have problems with their communication, social interactions, imagination and play. ASD is a life-long disorder.
It is important to remember that no two children with ASD are exactly the same, although they may have similar problems. That is why the disorder is called a 'spectrum'.
If you are concerned about these aspects of your child's behaviour, please see your family doctor and ask for a referral to a specialist paediatrician or psychologist. Do not try to make a diagnosis yourself.
Children with ASD tend to have difficulties in three main areas:
A child with ASD may have many unusual ways of interacting socially. They may only interact with others when they need to or they might actively talk with others but only about their own special interests. Common ways of describing the interactions of children with ASD include seeming at times 'aloof', 'passive', 'active but odd' or 'overly formal and stilted'.
Many children with ASD have poor communication skills or focus their communication towards objects rather than people. Children with more severe ASD do not speak. There are many children with ASD who have normal language skills but will have problems with social language. Their conversations may be one-sided or they may talk a lot or repeat certain words over and over, such as "me" or "you". This is called 'echolalia'. Most children with ASD have difficulties with 'non-verbal communication', such as making sustained eye contact, reading body language and other non-verbal "cues" such as understanding or expressing emotions through tone of voice and facial expressions.
Children with ASD often lack creativity and imaginative play. They may prefer using their senses to explore toys, for example smelling, tasting or staring at the toys rather than playing with them. Some children prefer repetitive or obsessive actions such as lining toys up in a long line or continuously spinning a car wheel. Other children become good at copying the way other children play or events such as movie scenes.Higher-functioning children with ASD (such as children with Asperger's syndrome) can become intensely interested in one topic, often to the exclusion of other activities or interests.
One of the main factors that affects how a child with ASD behaves and functions is their intellectual ability (i.e. IQ). Children with ASD can range from being severely disabled through to highly intelligent. About one child in four with ASD has an IQ in the normal range or above, but three out of four children with ASD will have some intellectual disability. The child's level of ability is often uneven, with areas of strength and weakness.
As well as the previously described impairments, many children with ASD can have other difficulties which include:
Children with ASD may have other medical conditions such as epilepsy, nutritional deficiencies or rare disorders including fragile X and tuberous sclerosis.
Research suggests that ASD is a genetic condition, but the exact gene thought to cause the disorder has not yet been identified. Research continues, with the aim of finding the cause and discovering more treatment options.
The diagnosis of ASD requires three independent specialist assessments. A paediatrician, psychologist and speech pathologist need to assess your child. As features vary so much between children, there is no single or simple test for ASD. If you are concerned about any aspect of your child's behaviour, please talk to your family doctor and ask for a referral to a specialist paediatrician or psychologist.
Treatment varies according to the needs of each child and the nature of their impairment/s and may include:
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Developed by RCH Quality and Improvement, with thanks to RCH psychologists, paediatricians and general practitioners for their significant input. First published August 2008. Updated May 2013.